Kenya’s first special court for handling sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) cases was opened in March 2022, at Shanzu Law Courts, Mombasa. Advocacy for Women in Peace and Security Africa (AWAPSA) sat down with ICAN’s Maya Kavaler to discuss how this was possible through their Innovative Peace Fund grant.
Through 2020 and 2021, as COVID-19 dominated headlines globally, another “shadow pandemic” swept across the world with many countries experiencing surging rates of domestic and gender-based violence (GBV). Kenya was no exception, with a shocking 92% increase in GBV cases between January and June 2020, compared to the previous year. On the frontline of responding to this phenomenon was Advocacy for Women in Peace and Security Africa (AWAPSA), a women-led peacebuilding organization working to promote peace, security and stability, and prevent violent extremism in Kenya. AWAPSA has been operating since 2013 and has partnered with the International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN) since 2017.
AWAPSA’s Program Manager, Mohamed Hamisi, explained how interventions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in Kenya, including curfews and restrictions on movement, led to job losses and intensified financial hardships. In the coastal region, where AWAPSA operates, many rely on the informal sector and tourism industry – both of which were particularly affected by the pandemic. These financial strains, coupled with confinement at home and fear of the virus, led to frustration, stress, and anger, thus magnifying a domestic and GBV problem that already plagued the region.
Though SGBV affects the whole of Kenya, AWAPA’s Executive Director and a member of the Women’s Alliance for Security Leadership (WASL), Sureya Roble, believes that the cultural and Islamic heritage of the coastal counties, as well as the lack of resources and investment in the region, contribute to the shame and stigma associated with being a SGBV survivor, making it far less likely for women to speak openly about their experiences:
“At the coast, our community is very reserved, so for someone to come out and say I was raped, or my daughter was defiled, it is not an easy thing. People are scared of what happens: What next? What if my relatives hear?”
Further aggravating the situation is the below average female literacy rate as compared with the rest of country and the prevalence of early marriage. Without access to education, many women do not understand their rights or the process of reporting violence: “Victims don’t know where to start” explained Roble.
AWAPSA set out to change this.
Identifying and Addressing SGBV through Education, Dialogue and Trust-Building
Funded by ICAN’s Innovative Peace Fund (IPF), AWAPSA launched a project in Mombasa, Kilifi and Kwale counties to increase awareness of SGBV, educate women and girls on how to report instances, and facilitate the reporting of cases to the police. AWAPSA brought together large groups of women and girls for convenings called “women engagement forums.” These included survivors and those at greater risk of experiencing SGBV, together with women from the community, including faith leaders, health workers, civil society, and police officers. During the women engagement forums, female police officers educated participants on the meaning of SGBV, examples of the numerous forms this type of violence can take, and the proper procedures for reporting cases at the police station through the gender desk. Female lawyers and civil society organizations helped participants understand their rights and what to expect when pursuing a case in court. The forums were also an opportunity to enable other participants, including the police, to better understand the threats and challenges faced by women in this area. These sessions built trust between the various stakeholders and led to wider community awareness, as participants shared what they had learned with their family and friends.
ICAN accompanied AWAPSA through the project cycle and supported them on project development, budgeting, monitoring and evaluation, and reporting. As a result of their IPF project, AWAPSA was able to build partnerships and network with like-minded organizations, deliver justice to victims, and lobby for better care and services, including safe houses. Most significantly, they developed a close relationship with the Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA) Kenya – a non-profit that offers free legal aid to women, to whom AWAPSA can refer victims.
The First Step in Achieving Justice: Kenya’s First SGBV Court
One of the most significant and unforeseen outcomes of AWAPSA’s IPF-funded project was the establishment of a court of law specializing in SGBV cases. This concept came out of the first phase of the women engagement forums, where it became apparent that the current justice system was failing survivors in a plethora of ways. Due to the pandemic, courts conducted hearings online rather than in person, adding another barrier for survivors, particularly those from rural areas who were unable to access stable internet or did not have the knowledge or equipment needed to appear virtually in court. Furthermore, cases in court were taking too long and failed to properly safeguard the survivors. Roble explained how the courts offered little privacy and survivors, especially child victims, often struggled to narrate their stories:
“The previous courts that we had were not child friendly. Most of our cases are defilement, sodomy cases, rape cases and its young people effected… but everyone listens irrespective whether they are part of the case or not. Let’s say for example the next case is coming up, people who are there waiting and buying time end up sitting and listening to what is happening. So, there is no privacy, and this created a lot of complications.”
At the time, out of 30 cases heard daily at Mombasa Law Court, 19 were related to incidents of sexual and gender-based violence. It was against this backdrop that AWAPSA and FIDA decided that they would lobby for a special court to specifically manage SGBV cases. With support from ICAN’s IPF, they networked with other women’s and human rights organizations, gained allies amongst women judges and magistrates, and advocated to Kenya’s Chief Judiciary to establish a new court.
“Heading in the right direction”: A ‘Survivor-Centered’ Approach
In a historic moment on March 10, 2022, Kenya’s first female Chief Justice, Martha Koome, opened the doors to Kenya’s SGBV specialized court at Shanzu Law Courts, Mombasa. The court, which serves all six counties in the coastal region, adopts a ‘survivor-centered’ approach, with experienced prosecutors and support staff. Roble explained:
“[The court] has brought confidence to victims because they feel like they are recognized. They have a place and they can speak up, they get privacy, and their cases are taken seriously.”
Since it has been operating, the court has seen approximately 120 cases, including child-rape cases and incidents of severe domestic violence , and brought justice to many survivors.
The Mombasa court is a prototype, and AWAPSA plans to advocate for other similar courts to be set up across the country. Roble believes that there is still work to be done for the court to be operating at its full potential. At present, the court meets only twice weekly, meaning there are delays and some aspects of victim support and privacy could be improved. However, she emphasized that the court is a strong sign that Kenya is finally taking the issue of SGBV seriously. This, coupled with the fact that Kenya’s much anticipated 2022 general elections passed with relatively little violence, means “this country is heading in the right direction” she says.
AWAPSA’s Executive Director, Sureya Roble was honored as a Justice Champion at the African Women Summit in May 2022 in Kigali, Rwanda, in recognition of her work championing women’s rights and bringing justice to survivors of sexual and gender-based violence.